TAR HEEL VIEW: Amendments on ballot shift power back to the people

State Sen. Rick Horner has more trust in his constituents than opponents of voter identification laws.

“The citizens of North Carolina finally get to decide if they want voter ID or not,” Horner, R-Nash, wrote Friday morning. “Now, who could be opposed to the people being heard?”

It’s a savvy shot across the bow as a chorus of critics browbeat the Republican-controlled General Assembly for approving a half-dozen constitutional amendments that will appear on November’s ballot. The voter ID provision is the most controversial, drawing the ire of progressives who say it’s a scheme to disenfranchise poor, elderly and minority voters who are more likely to support Democrats.

“North Carolina lawmakers have an ugly track record of enacting unnecessary and discriminatory voting restrictions, and this time they are passing the buck to voters by asking them to permanently change our state’s constitution in a way that will place hurdles in front of law-abiding North Carolinians, silence people’s voices and undermine a fundamental right,” American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina spokesman Mike Meno said in a prepared statement.

Lawmakers, however, aren’t “passing the buck.” They’re returning state power to the people.

Meno’s interpretation only makes sense if you believe elected officials are meant to rule us rather than serve us. It implies all policy decisions are the legislature’s exclusive domain and a public referendum is somehow irresponsible.

California, arguably the nation’s most liberal enclave, has more referenda than any other state. Voters there regularly decide matters that other statehouses reserve for themselves, and Californians enjoy the prerogative to recall officials who don’t live up to expectations.

What could be fairer and more democratic, after all, than direct democracy?

In addition to the voter ID amendment, North Carolinians will have five other opportunities to amend the state constitution. The next-most contentious is a “max tax” provision that would cap the state income tax at 5.5 percent. The constitution currently enforces a 10 percent tax ceiling.

Other amendments would change the way judicial vacancies are filled, creating a nonpartisan commission to vet nominees and nominating two finalists for the governor’s appointment; create a combined elections and ethics board and stripping the governor of some appointment powers; enhance crime victims’ notification and testimony rights; and establish a constitutional right to hunt and fish.

Legislative leaders say they’re letting state residents have the last word. Critics who stew too loud and long over the constitutional amendments risk placing themselves at odds with the average voter — who probably appreciates the opportunity to weigh in.

Hand-wringing over ballot initiatives shows that Tar Heel progressives don’t trust voters to make what they consider the right choice. Where voter ID is concerned, they have reason to be worried. Surveys show a majority of North Carolina voters support a photo ID requirement at the polls.

Unless they’re content with seeming undemocratic, liberals should focus on making their case for voters to defeat the amendment rather than bellyaching simply because ordinary people, not just the high and mighty legislators, have a say.

Progress North Carolina Action offers an objection more valid and reasonable than the ACLU’s. The group says it’s concerned because the constitutional amendment is too vague — it would require voter ID but delegate rulemaking authority to the legislature. Lawmakers, not citizens, would decide which forms of identification are acceptable and how new election laws would be implemented.

“Trusting this legislature to fairly craft details of voter ID rules after the people have already voted on a constitutional amendment is like trusting the school bully with another kid’s lunch money,” wrote the group’s executive director, Gerrick Brenner.

Brenner has a point. The devil’s in the details, and we’d feel better if voters, not partisan elected officials, were the ones choosing precisely how voter ID would be implemented.

Imperfect referenda are better than no referenda at all, and Horner’s point remains the most persuasive. While it’s clear the General Assembly’s GOP majority wants the voter ID, income tax cap, hunting and fishing and other constitutional amendments to pass, they’re trusting the state’s voters to decide.

More direct democracy is a good thing. Whether you support or oppose this slate of constitutional amendments, the choices are — and ought to be — yours to make.

The Wilson Times

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